The 10 Most Notorious Criminals in American History

1. Al Capone (1899 – 1947)

Ask anyone in the world to name an American criminal, and Al Capone is likely to be the most common answer. He is the archetype of a gangster, and a symbol of the lawless America of the first half of the 20th century. Born in Brooklyn to Italian immigrants, Capone started out running with small-time New York gangs, but moved to Chicago to act as right-hand man to mob enforcer Johnny Torrio. After his boss was injured in an ambush, the 26-year-old Capone became the boss of the Chicago Outfit, a ‘business’ involved in illegal brewing andalcohol distribution. Capone wasn’t beyond bombing his customers into buying his product. A flamboyant figure, Capone was known for his sharp suits and over-the-top costume jewellery. To keep himself safe from his many enemies and rivals, Capone took over the town of Cicero, Illinois which he ran as a personal fiefdom. In league with Republican politician William Hale Thompson, the boss of Cook county, Capone effective controlled Chicago politics as well. Famously, Capone ordered the St Valentine’s Day massacre, when the last of his major Chicago rivals were wiped out. Capone’s legal troubles started when he was convicted of carrying a gun on a trip to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Hounded out of Miami on trumped up charges of vagrancy, Capone eventually met his nemesis in the person of Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt who successfully argued in front of the Supreme Court that gangsters had to declare illegal income for tax purposes (the mob had tried to claim that being made to declare illegal income was a violation of the fifth amendment). Once Willebrandt had her victory, other law officers went after Capone and his fellow bosses for tax evasion. In 1932 Al Capone was convicted of fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to eleven years in federal prison. He was 33 years old. Increasingly suffering from syphilis, Capone was paroled in 1939, but his mental and physical health were wrecked. He died at his mansion in Palm Island, Florida in 1947 at the age of 48.

2. Charles Manson (1934 – present)

Notorious mass murderer and cult leader, Charles Manson appears to be a product of his time. In the 1960s he founded and controlled a weird commune-like family where all the women were shared and the children (mainly Manson’s) were raised in common. Starting out as a petty criminal in Virginia, Manson moved to the Los Angeles area in 1955. He continued his life of small time crime, he was imprisoned on two occasions, first for 3 years, and then 6 years for fraud. After release, he retreated to the desert with his followers, his ‘Family’ over whom he had total control. In 1969 he ordered the murders of everyone at the house occupied by Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate. Polanski was overseas at the time, but the pregnant Tate and four others were tied up, slashed, stabbed, and shot. The next day, the horrendous event was repeated at the nearby house of the LaBianca family, this time with the direct involvement of Manson, and two more people were butchered. Law enforcement quickly linked the two events, and then linked them to a third earlier event for which the perpetrator, Bobby Beausoleil, had shown links to the Manson family. LAPD moved in an arrested Manson and his followers. In a remarkable trial that followed, Charles Manson, and three others, were convicted of 27 counts, including the murders of Sharon Tate and others. Manson claimed that his crimes were part of HelterSkelter – a weird race war theory that he had, apparently inspired by the Beatles song of that name. During the trial Manson declared that he was the devil and carved a pentagram into his forehead. Years later in high-security prison, he would turn that into a swastika. Sentenced to death, Manson’s life was spared in 1972 when California declared a moratorium on the death penalty. At the age of 82, Charles Manson continues to languish in prison.

3. Ted Kaczynski (1942 – present)

Known to history as the Unabomber, Kaczynski is undoubtedly a genius. He entered Harvard at 16 and took his PHD at the age of 25. But he abandoned his budding academic career in mathematics in 1969. Two years later, Kaczynski took up residence in a log cabin in Montana. There he learned survival skills, but according to his own account, he also became horrified at how the modern world was destroying the natural environment. In 1978 he sent a mail bomb to Buckley Crist, a professor of material engineering at North-western University. Suspicious, Crist turned the package to campus security, and in exploded when a security guard was trying to examine it, injuring his hand. He sent other bombs to airline officials, and placed one on the American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago to Washington DC. Thankfully, the bomb failed, but Kaczynski had committed a federal crime, and now quickly climbed the ranks of the FBI’s most wanted. Due to his choice of targets, the FBI began to call the investigation into Kaczynski the UNABOMB case (from University and Airline Bomber), and Kaczynski himself became the Unabomber in the media. In 1985 Kaczynski claimed his first fatality when a bomb killed Hugh Scrutton, a computer store owner in Sacramento. The bombs would eventually take two more lives, and injure 23 people. The bomber liked to leave fake clues on his homemade bombs, including latent fingerprints. Despite what turned out to be a pretty accurate psychological profile of the bomber, and a number of unexploded bombs that the FBI could examine in detail, the trail of the Unabomber seemed cold. `Then, in 1995 the bomber issued a demand that if his 35,000 word ‘manifesto’ were published, he would stop his campaign. Urged by Attorney General Janet Reno, the New York Times and the Washington post published the rambling document on September 19 1995. David Kaczynski, the bomber’s brother, recognised the writing style, and the theme of the document as resembling things he had read written by his brother Ted. David went to the FBI, and an analysis of the writing confirmed that Ted Kaczynski had written the ‘manifesto’. The FBI executed a search warrant at Ted’s cabin, and found plenty of corroborating evidence. The Unabomber’s reign of terror was over. In a plea bargain made to save his life, Kaczynski pleaded guilty to 3 counts of murder and 10 counts of transportation and mailing of bombs. He was sentenced to 8 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

4. John Wayne Gacy (1942 – 1994)

John Wayne Gacy was everyone’s nightmare. He performed as a clown at charitable events, but also was guilty of the rape, torture and murder of 33 boys and young men between the years 1972 and 1978 in Cook County, Illinois. All of his known murders took place at his home, and he hid the bodies in his crawl space, or buried them on his property, or threw them in the Des Plains river. He used deception to lure his young victims to his house and there after he had raped and tortured them, he strangled them to death. Gacy started out with sexual assaults, but apparently this didn’t satisfy him. After he split from his wife, he started bringing youths and young men home. He quickly progressed to killing them, claiming later that he got an intense sexual thrill out of the act. After Gacy told a 15-year-old boy Robert Piest, that he was hiring teenagers for some easy work, the boy went missing. At the pharmacy where Piest worked, his boss told the police that he had seen the oy talking to Gacy. Despite his denials of involvement in Piest’s disappearance, the police executed a search warrant on Gacy’s house. They found items clearly bellowing to other men, and a search dog indicated that Piest had been in Gacy’s car, but there was no conclusive proof. The police began surveillance on Gacy. Eventually the stress told on the killer, and after the police once more visited his home, Gacy cracked and began confessing to his crimes. In all he confessed to 25 to 30 murders. Eventually the number was fixed at 33. Despite desperate attempts by his defense team that Gacy was insane, he was convicted after only 2 hours of deliberation. He was sentenced to death for 12 of the murders, and was executed in 1994.

5. Ted Bundy (1946 – 1989)

If there is an archetypical psychopath, then Theodore Robert Bundy was it. Even his defence team said that he was ‘the very definition of heartless evil’. Bundy was a serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, burglar and necrophile who assaulted and murdered many young women and girls during the 1970s. He eventually confessed to 390 murders, but the real toll could be much much higher. Handsome and charismatic, Bundy used his natural gifts to exploit the trust of young vulnerable women, His method was to approach his chosen victim in public, pretending to be injured or disabled, or sometimes impersonating an authority figure. Once he had their trust he would overpower and assault them at more secluded locations. He sometimes revisited his crime scenes for hours at a time, performing sexual acts with the decomposing corpses until putrefaction and destruction by wild animals made further interaction impossible. He decapitated at least 12 of his victims, and kept some of the severed heads in his apartment for a period of time as mementos. On a few occasions, he simply broke into dwellings at night and bludgeoned his victims as they slept. He was arrested and imprisoned in Utah in 1975 for aggravated kidnapping and criminal assault. As the police looked at his life more closely, he became the suspect in a string of murders in several states. He was charged with murder in Colorado, but twice escaped to continue killing before he was finally captured in Florida. For his murders in Florida alone he received 3 death sentences. He was executed by electric chair at Florida State Prison in January 1989.

6. Timothy McVeigh (1968 – 2001)

A Gulf War veteran, Timothy James McVeigh conceived of and executed the largest act of domestic terrorism in US history. Claiming to hate the federal government due to its handling of the siege at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and the siege at Waco in 1993, McVeigh and his confederate built an ammonium nitrate fertilizer and nitromethane truck bomb and McVeigh detonated it in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The attack killed 168 people and injured over 600. Many of the were young children attending the onsite kindergarten. McVeighclaimed that he wanted to inspire a revolt against the federal government. He was convicted of eleven federal offenses and sentenced to death. Four years after his conviction, McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. His execution was carried out in a considerably shorter amount of time than average after his trial, as most convicts on death row in the United States spend an average of fifteen years awaiting execution.

7. John Dillinger (1903-1934)

Some criminals can become emblems of a romantic life, led in rebellion against society. John Herbert Dillinger managed that feat while he was still alive. Dillinger was a gangster operating with a group of men known as the Dillinger Gang or Terror Gang, which was accused of robbing 24 banks and four police stations, among other activities. Dramatically captured, Dillinger twice escaped from jail. He was also charged with, but never convicted of, the murder of an East Chicago, Indiana, police officer who shot Dillinger in his bullet-proof vest during a shootout, prompting him to return fire; despite his infamy, it was Dillinger’s only homicide charge.Dillinger loved publicity and realised that it could help him. The media of his time ran exaggerated accounts of his bravado and colorful personality, styling him as a Robin Hood figure. But Dillinger’s high profile rattled the FBI’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, who used the cause of chasing Dillinger as a way to develop a much more robust FBI, dedicated to stamping out organized crime. After evading police in four states for almost a year, Dillinger was wounded in a shootout and returned to his father’s home to recover. He returned to Chicago in July 1934 and met his end at the hands of police and federal agents who were informed of his whereabouts by the owner of the brothel where Dillinger had sought refuge. On July 22, 1934, the police and the FBI closed in on the Biograph Theater. Federal agents moved to arrest Dillinger as he exited the theater. He drew a Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket and attempted to flee, but was killed. He was 31.

8. Mohammad Atta (1968 – 2001)

Of the 20 men who committed the terrorist atrocities on 9/11. By far the most well-known now is Mohamed Atta. He was the leader of the attack team and flew American Airlines Flight 11 and crashed the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At 33, he was the oldest of the 19 hijackers who took part in the attacks. Atta was born in a small town in Egypt’s Nile Delta. He studied architecture at Cairo University, graduating in 1990, and continued his studies in Germany at the Hamburg University of Technology. In Hamburg, Atta became involved with the al-Quds Mosque, where he met other men who would take part in the 2001 attacks. Atta travelled to Afghanistan several times, where he met Osama bin Laden. Atta and the other men were recruited by bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for the “planes operation” in the United States. Atta returned to Hamburg in February 2000, and began inquiring about flight training in the United States. Atta arrived in the United States in June, 2000 and ended up in Venice, Florida at Huffman Aviation, where he entered the Accelerated Pilot Program. Atta obtained instrument ratings in November 2000, and continued training on simulators and flight training. In July 2001, Atta traveled to Spain where he met with al Qaeda members to exchange information and finalize the plot. In August 2001, Atta traveled as a passenger on several “surveillance” flights, to establish in detail how the attacks could be carried out. On September 10 (the day before the attacks), he traveled with another plotter, Abdulaziz al-Omari,to Portland, Maine. They spent the night at the Comfort Inn in South Portland. On the morning of September 11, Atta and Omari flew on Colgan Air back to Boston, where they boarded American Airlines Flight 11. Fifteen minutes into the flight, the team of hijackers stormed the cockpit and Atta took over control of the aircraft. At 8:46 a.m., Atta crashed the Boeing 767 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The crash led to the collapse of the tower 102 minutes later at 10:28 a.m., ultimately causing the deaths of over 1,600 civilians and first responders.

9. Lee Harvey Oswald (1939 – 1963)

The question of whether Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. marine and a Marxist assassinated John F. Kennedy has been examined by no fewer thanfour federal government investigations and one municipal investigation. The conclusion is that yes, Oswald shot Kennedy, and he was probably acting alone. Oswald was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959. He lived in the Belarusian city of Minsk until June 1962, at which time he returned to the United States with his Russian wife Marina and eventually settled in Dallas. He took a job at the Texas School Book Depository, which turned out to be fortuitous for him when the president’s motorcade was scheduled to drive past at lunchtime on November 22 1963. Oswald shot the president three times from a sniper’s nest of the 6th floor. About 45 minutes after the shooting, Oswald shot and killed Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit on a local street when Tippit stopped Oswald to talk to him. Oswald then slipped into a movie theatre, where he was arrested for Tippit’s murder. Oswald was later charged with the murder of Kennedy. He denied shooting anybody, saying that he was a “patsy”. Two days later, Oswald was in the process of being transferred from the city jail to the county jail when he was fatally shot by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby in full view of television cameras broadcasting live. The 1964 Warren Commission released its findings and concluded that Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy by firing three shots from the Texas School Book Depository. This conclusion was supported by previous investigations carried out by the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Dallas Police Department. Despiteoverwhelming forensic, ballistic, and eyewitness evidence supporting the lone gunman theory, public opinion polls taken over the years have shown that most Americans believe that Oswald did not act alone, but conspired with others to kill the president.

10. O J Simpson (1947 – present)

O J Simpson is a criminal, and one of the most famous in the world. The crime that he served time for is not the crime that he is famous for. In 1994, Simpson was arrested and charged with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. He was acquitted after a lengthy and internationally publicized trial. The families of the victims subsequently filed a civil suit against him, and in 1997 a civil court awarded a $33.5 million judgment against Simpson for the victims’ wrongful deaths. The intense media interest was due to the fact that Orenthal James “O. J.” Simpson is a former NFL running back. He has also been a broadcaster, actor,and advertising spokesman. Simpson attended USC, where he played football for the USC Trojans and won the Heisman Trophy in 1968. He played professionally in the NFL as a running back for 11 seasons, primarily with the Buffalo Bills from 1969 to 1977. He also played for the San Francisco 49ers from 1978 to 1979. In 1973, he became the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. He holds the record for the single season yards-per-game average, which stands at 143.1. He is the only player to ever rush for over 2,000 yards in the 14-game regular season NFL format. Simpson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. After retiring from football, he began new careers in acting and football broadcasting. Then came the Simpson/Goldman murders. The spectacle of OJ engaged in a slow speed chase with police down the LA freeways was a defining moment of the 1990s, and the trial, and acquittal, proved to be fascinating and divisive. Despite his being acquitted, many people believe OJ did commit the murders, and there is certainly plenty of evidence that points to that conclusion. But that is not why OJ Simpson is a convicted felon. In 2007, Simpson was arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada, and charged with the felonies of armed robbery and kidnapping. The charges related to a madcap plan for OJ to recover some stolen sporting memorabilia from the people, friends of Simpson, who were offering it for sale. The attack went badly and in 2008, he was convicted and sentenced to 33 years imprisonment, with a minimum of nine years without parole. In July 2017, Simpson was granted parole and was released on October 1 2017.

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